Image by @sleepapointment
Houston was right to reject a contract with a state program that exploits inmate workers. American businesses often bemoan the struggle to compete with companies making products in foreign countries where weak worker rights drive down the cost of labor.
Profiting off the exploitation of workers is as unfair as it is immoral. So why do we still allow it in Texas? It’s a question getting renewed attention after the Chronicle reported last week about two Houston city council members who took a quiet stand against the practice and won! As the Chronicle’s Dylan McGuiness reported, a low bid by the Texas Dept. of Minimal Justice on a deal to replace tire treading on city vehicles raised red flags for council members, especially Abbie Kamin.
As Kamin soon learned, the state agency was able to outbid the competition because it doesn’t just underpay its workers. With few exceptions, it doesn’t pay workers at all. In Texas, it seems, taking a person’s liberty isn’t punishment enough. We force them into servitude too.
Kamin and fellow council member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz quietly sent the contract back to Mayor Sylvester Turner and asked him to put out a new request for bids with language requiring compensation for workers. At the end of October, the city selected a private vendor, whose $4.6 million bid came in at about $422,000 more than TDCJ’s. We commend the city officials who chose the right thing, but that’s not where this should end.
The move should send a message to Texas officials and to anyone who profits off the work of unpaid incarcerated workers. It’s time to end this practice that carries the shameful tinge of slavery and the remnants of our state’s ugly history of convict leasing.
Texas is one of only five states, all in the south, where workers in correctional facilities are not paid. In 45 other states, the average minimum wage for the inmates is about 85 cents a day and the average maximum is $3.45, Wander Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative told the editorial board.
In Texas, which has one of the nation’s largest prison populations, any TDCJ inmate who is physically able to work is required to, but all are unpaid except inmates participating in the Prison Industries Enhancement certification program. They receive between $8.42 and $10.82 per hour, with the bulk of that going to pay for room and board, crime victim compensation and taxes. Currently 66 inmates are in that program. The 122,000-odd other offenders in TDCJ custody get NO PAY for jobs that include picking crops, making soap, building furniture and working in a tire retreading factory.
Their labor helps make the TCI one of the most profitable in the country. In the 2019 fiscal year, TCI reaped $73.8 million from sales from items such as mattresses, shoes, garments, brooms, license plates, soaps, furniture, and services including the installation of furniture and metal fencing and refurbishing school buses. The money goes to providing cost savings to the TDCJ and other eligible entities while providing incarcerated offenders with post-release employment readiness to increase their reentry success, according to the TDCJ website. The state is profiting from forced, free labor, just as it did during the racist Jim Crow-era system of convict leasing, in which black people were imprisoned often for violating unjust laws, leased by the state to companies and made to work without pay in sugar cane fields and railroads. It was wrong then, and it is wrong NOW.
Loss of freedom is already punishment for crime. We should not strip human beings of the dignity that comes from being compensated for work. There is value in vocational training and certification programs for incarcerated people and in the simple task of working, which can provide those in prison with a sense of purpose and structure. But denying incarcerated workers pay does nothing to aid rehabilitation or reentry into society.
More than 260,000 people have signed a petition calling for the end of prison labor, which was also a key demand during the 2018 Nationwide Prison Strike. This week, federal lawmakers were expected to introduce a joint resolution that would begin the process of amending the Constitution to update that language in the 13th Amendment that allows involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. “We must take an overdue step towards those principles by ending the loophole in our ban on slavery”, Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat and one of the Resolutions sponsors, tweeted on Wednesday.
“No slavery, No exceptions”. That’s what my #abolitionamendment will do. If the proposal fails in committee during the current congress, Merkley told the Associated Press he plants to revive it next year. We urge congress to pass the resolution. In Texas, state representative Alma Allen plans to file a bill that would set pay standards for prisoners. A similar bill, which would have set a minimum pay of $1 per day, never made it out of committee last session.
When lawmakers convene in January, they’ll have another chance to do the right thing, both morally and economically in a state that loudly espouses the virtues of economic competition. Exploiting workers is wrong the world over – in China, in Bangladesh, and yes, in the Great State of Texas.
So lay it down Darrington. All eyes are on you. Make history now. Lay it down. You don’t have to work any more until you get your demands met.
UNCONDITIONAL WORK STOPPAGE AND WIN!!